By Robert Zeglinski
The main reason Matt Nagy is the NFL’s reigning Coach of the Year isn’t because of offensive wizardry. It has nothing to do with mastery of any Bears personnel. It’s in the beauty of how he utilizes his words as a motivator, and how his actions paint the picture of a leader who knows how to galvanize a locker room.
When the Bears began the 2019 off-season, an air of somewhat deserved arrogance surrounded them. They may have failed to advance a round in the playoffs, but they were coming off a 12-win season with an excellent core of veterans and youth mixed together almost perfectly. If they thought they had little to fix, who could blame them? If they believed the magic would only continue from where they stood, there would be little justifiable retorts.
That overconfidence in itself, that complacency, is the greatest precursor to a fall from football grace. One the Bears, Nagy especially, would do well to avoid as the 2019 NFL Draft kicks off in Nashville, Tennessee this Thursday. While the Bears will play a cadre of other expected Super Bowl contenders next season like the Rams, Chiefs, and Saints, their main enemy will continue be themselves inside and out.
“What we’ve done is build this foundation,” Nagy said in March. “That was our goal in Year 1 – let’s build a foundation. And I don’t know what our record’s going to be, but let’s get everybody in this building – at Halas Hall back in Chicago – to believe and trust what we’re talking about. It’s easy to talk about it, but you have to back it up.”
The most significant sidebar to consistent success in the NFL has never been a lack of fortune or talent. While it can be predicated on circumstance, it’s not entirely connected. No, the main issue with keeping the gravy train rolling in the NFL has always been complacency. Complacency not just in being generally comfortable with your active situation, but in believing you don’t have much to fix in the face of previous failure. Complacency is the enemy of greatness, the foil that creeps up when you least expect it.
And when you have no expectations of failure after a taste of success, that’s when you’re at your most vulnerable.
The reigning NFC North Champion Bears enter the Music City this week sitting in a strange place: Most of their starting roster is set in stone, as are their coffers of depth. For the first time in over a decade, general manager Ryan Pace and the Bears don’t have to be keen on filling an immediate impact position. There isn’t a pressing need screaming “emergency” with all hands on deck. They’re not actively looking for a transcendent superstar to don the organization’s trademark navy blue and orange, but they won’t be perturbed if they find him.
That doesn’t mean the Bears should be sitting on their hands waiting for a Lombardi trophy to be hand-delivered. That would be ill-advised. It does, however, mean they have more room to play around with: A dangerous spot for a pro football franchise to be in depending on your outlook.
The Bears don’t have a first or second-round pick this year: They can thank trades for Khalil Mack and Anthony Miller for that. Fortunately for them, paying the price for a player like Mack has been worth it to this point. Maybe eventually, the same will be said for the second-year Miller. In a fitting theme, Pace maintained this week the Bears will play Mack highlights when the Raiders use the No. 24 overall pick they acquired from Chicago. A self-regarding statement almost resembling Halas Hall’s version of the “Rains of Castamere,” but this time victory isn’t assured for House Halas.
What the Bears need to assure victory in their place of comfort – limited draft resources and all – is drafting sleeper players to assist in putting them over the top. A mandate of more polished but overlooked contributors in the secondary, on the defensive edge, and up front offensively that can potentially help on Day 1 on the field, but don’t have to when all said and done. Young players capable of being called upon in an emergency and growing up quickly, but who also have time to learn.
What the Bears don’t need in their place of comfort is complacency. Complacency is truly unsightly because it can take many forms of self-defeat. In the Bears’ draft events, complacency could compel them to take an unnecessary flier on an incredibly raw prospect that needs years to develop with one of their few mid-round picks. Given the Bears’ current championship window, they can wait for someone, but not that long. Complacency could make them think they can trade down from No. 87 overall as Pace has been known to do in acquiring more picks in the past, all the while completely overlooking a stud player they could’ve had had they stood pat. If fortune smiles upon them with a great sleeper of a prospect, they’d do well to pounce on the opportunity.
Complacency, above all, could make the Bears’ think they’re relatively invincible.
To this stage, worrying about these Bears resting on their laurels is a fruitless endeavor only if you recognize there’s no sampling of their active situation. 2018 was the first time Pace and his cohort experienced much of any success. There’s plenty of sample size on the Bears being a walking dumpster fire pre-2018 under Pace’s hand. There’s a decent sample size as to patience paying off as well with last season. There’s no testing ground as to how this regime deals with the perils of success in its aftermath, how they contend with a giant bullseye on their back.
That’s a frightening proposition for most in the NFL because most never consider it. Title windows are short, and end faster than everyone would prefer. Teams like the Patriots, who have been running on almost two decades of dominance, flourish because they never get complacent. Teams like the Bears, running on one measly year of a division title by comparison, have a lot to learn.
Thursday, in what looks like a trickier draft to maneuver around but is just as important, is the Bears’ first step toward continuing a trend of building on self-satisfaction. You build on self-satisfaction, on complacency, by never acknowledging it in the first place.
By the numbers
- Less than 30 percent: The historical hit rate of finding consistent starters at most positions in the third round of the NFL Draft.
- Less than 25 percent: The historical hit rate of finding consistent starters at most positions from the fourth-seventh rounds.
- 18: The number of players Pace’s Bears have selected from the third round and on since 2015.
- 7: The number of those players (Adrian Amos, Jordan Howard, Nick Kwiatkoski, Deon Bush, Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen, and Bilal Nichols) that could be considered starters or “solid”.
The pick at No. 87 overall: Justin Layne, CB, Michigan State
The Bears not only need boundary cornerback depth, they also need a starter for the future. Someone that could potentially slot in seamlessly opposite Kyle Fuller after next season for a championship contender. In the NFL, what you have at cornerback – both in starters and in case of emergency – is just as crucial as your depth in the trenches. One of the best fits for that goal is the lanky Justin Layne.
A two-year starter for one of college football’s feistiest defenses at Michigan State, Layne would be fantastic in defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s aggressive and veiled scheme. Given Pagano’s extensive background in developing defensive backs over the years, the selection of a highly touted pupil for him to closely work with makes a lot of sense.
Layne profiles exactly like a cornerback the Bears have typically gravitated to in their defense. The lanky 6-foot-2, 192 pounder is a prototypical press cornerback adept at leaning on his length and frame in bullying receivers and leaving them little space. While he had little interceptions in college (3), Layne’s ball skills are some of the best you’ll find in the mid-rounds of this draft. This is a player with a penchant for finding the ball in the air and making a play on it. Detractors will note Layne’s often soft work in run support needs significant polish. But as a player with plenty of time to sit on the sidelines and grow behind Fuller and Prince Amukamara in Chicago, it shouldn’t be an issue. With that time, Layne should morph into a solid long-term second cornerback.
Drafting Layne now, should he be available when the Bears select this weekend, is a move with eyes on the near future and a title window. It’s being proactive and recognizing where the holes are starting to form in the ship and appropriately plugging them in before you take on too much water. Layne is the cornerback of the future for the Bears, and an enemy of complacency.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.